Is it really “Hard Out Here” for Lily Allen?

Lily Allen @ Solidays 2007
Lily Allen @ Solidays 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Brianna Suslovic ’16

After a brief hiatus from the music industry, artist Lily Allen is back on the scene with a critique of her peers in her new music video “Hard Out Here.” In the video, Allen is obviously trying to satirize the standard “Robin-Thicke-and-Miley-Cyrus” approach to Top 40. The video begins with Allen lying on a surgery table, about to undergo liposuction. Her manager is standing by, equipped with his Blackberry, informing her of the nighttime TV hosts who’ve turned her down. He looks down at her body on the operating table with disgust, muttering, “How could someone let themselves get like this?” Allen responds pragmatically, “Uh, I had two babies…”

In this scene, I’m totally on board with Allen–women’s bodies are policed in the media in ways that are unfair and irrational. When a woman like Allen has a body that has undergone pregnancy and birth twice, why is this not celebrated (and instead, criticized)?

The pop culture site Idolator claims that Allen “saves pop music” with this music video. A Yahoo article praises her for satirizing so much of the blatant body-shaming and sexism that exists in the music industry (“Go Lily!”). But the question is, does she go deep enough in her critique?

As the video progressed, I began to take issue with some of Allen’s props and lyrics. I’m going to give Allen and her management team the benefit of the doubt, assuming for the purpose of my own critique that these choices were made with the best intentions. Despite these intentions, however, in her attempt to satirize, Allen still managed to alienate.

The video cuts to black women twerking (a la Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop”), an obvious parody of the use of black women as props in pop music videos. This is where I started to feel a bit uncomfortable. While Allen may not have intended to dehumanize and objectify the women of color twerking in her video, she succeeded in doing so anyways–using these women’s bodies as twerk spectacle only serves to further isolate them and fetishize them as “Others” who don’t deserve to be named or identified, who are not on the same level as the white women singing in front of them. It’s hypocritical, but not necessarily in an ironic or satirical way–to me, Allen’s piece reads as mimicry of racist tropes in pop music that do not need to be perpetuated, even “ironically” or with good intent. As Keli Goff from The Root explains, “If Allen really wanted to make a statement about sexism, sexual exploitation and racial exploitation in the music industry, then a real satire might have included a bunch of scantily clad white males writhing around as alcohol is poured over them. Instead of satire, Allen merely perpetuated the status quo.”

Allen’s lyrics can also be read as implicitly racist; is she criticizing black hip hop culture when she says, “I won’t be bragging ’bout my cars or talking ’bout my chains / Don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain?” These kinds of subtle jabs have hit a nerve with black feminists, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding Lorde’s song “Royals.”

I sat down to watch this after seeing it on PolicyMic with the headline, “Lily Allen’s ‘Hard Out Here’ Video Will Make Feminists Proud.” As a feminist of color, I wouldn’t say that my reaction was one of pride, but rather, one of discomfort. It’s catchy, but confusing. Her director wasn’t even willing to call the video a critique, which indicates some misguidedness or some unclear objectives. I respect Allen for her decision to critique some of the oppression and injustice that is found in the music industry (“Inequality promises that it’s here to stay / Always trust the injustice ’cause it’s not going away”), but I’m unwilling to just accept it at face value without raising concerns of race and privilege. It’s “hard out here” for some of us, but maybe not as hard for you, Lily Allen.

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